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When People Stare At Me I Smile At Them, Says Pragya Singh, Acid Attack Survivor And Activist

Posted: March 6, 2020

Pragya Singh, an acid attack survivor, works to rehabilitate and empower acid attack survivors through Atijeevan Foundation, that calls for skin donation.

“I cannot change my city or my country, because I will always carry my face and that face will always arise so many questions and shocking reactions, so now I have accepted it. Whenever people stare at me I smile at them. Some smile back but some run away.” – Pragya Singh

I was once watching a group of 6-8-year girls playing a silly game about ‘what you fear the most’.  The girls were asking each other questions they had to answer instantly without thinking, a rapid fire game.
What is the worst way to die?
Burning!!
Falling from a height!
What is the worst thing to have on the face – Chicken pox marks or crooked teeth?
Marks!
Eww!
Haha! 

I could not watch them finish the game but what I did gather was ‘burning’ and ‘having something on the face’ were the most dreaded fears even at a young age.

In a way, I felt relieved that these young girls were so innocent that they had no idea that there are such men who can inflict such cruelty on women, that could make their worst fears come true. Pain that burns the face and skin, and destroys the one unique thing that you have that nobody else does – Your face. Your identity. Your first impression on people.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 #IWD2020 is #EachForEqual. The spirit of sisterhood, in which women help other women rise up to equal, help them towards a better life, using whatever privilege they have.

2006: The nightmare that unfolded

Pragya Singh, a newly married woman was travelling from Varanasi to Delhi in an AC three-tier on 30 April 2006 to attend her campus placement interview. She had completed her graduation from Benaras Hindu University and post-graduation from Delhi in Fashion Management. It was just 12 days after her wedding that her grandfather had passed away. Pragya was reluctant to leave and wanted to be with her parents. But as per tradition, a newly-wed could not attend a funeral. Her parents convinced her to go ahead for the interview.

Looking back, she wishes she had not listened to them and had stayed back. But how could anyone have imagined what laid in store for her that ill-fated night? At 2 am at night, she jolted out of her sleep. She was in immense pain, and could see fumes coming off her body.

In an earlier interview, Pragya Singh has spoken about this. People around tried to help her, and a doctor in the next bogie recognised it as an attack with acid. The doctor advised her fellow passengers to bathe her with plenty of water. Two passengers were generous enough to escort her to the hospital at Etawah where the train stopped after two hours. For the next two days she was unconscious and her only memory is of waking up in the ICU at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi.

“A jilted man whose marriage proposal my parents had denied threw acid on me.” She recollected the night that would haunt her for life. “It felt like I was on fire. I became unconscious. For seventeen days, I swung between life and death in the ICU of the burn ward at the hospital,” she said.

Over the next two years, Pragya underwent multiple surgeries for reconstruction of her lower and upper eyelids, nose, lips, and ears. Every single surgery in 2006-2007 costed 70,000 – 1 lakh rupees. There was no government support at that time. All the expenses were borne by her parents.

Acceptance: the new normal

Pragya spent the initial one year of treatment at her cousin’s house in Chennai, who she addresses as Chetan Bhaiya. There were times when she wanted to give up on everything. But her cousin would always tell her, “God has different plans for you, you have a bigger role to play, bigger than any one of us, you can be a savior and a face of courage for many. I am certain that you are going to do much better than what God had planned for you!”

That night Pragya cried her heart out. But she remembered every word her Bhaiya said. She stared at her face in the cracked mirror. She kept looking at it the whole night, till every muscle in her body became aware of her reality. For the first time in months, she smiled. She smiled because she was alive. She  smiled because she survived everything. She smiled because she suddenly knew her purpose, something bigger than survival, justice and a lifetime of gratefulness.

Atijeevan Foundation – A calling for Pragya Singh

I asked Pragya what is the biggest challenge faced by women who are survivors of an acid attack. Her reply was ‘acceptance’. Acceptance of oneself. Acceptance by family. Acceptance in society.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Pragya had identified the need. It led to her brainchild, the Atijeevan Foundation, which has been India’s leading community for rehabilitation and empowerment of burn and acid attack survivors. The core objective of the foundation is to focus on the personal growth and welfare of both acid attack and burn survivors in India.

Honestly, I did not know much about skin donation. This was a good opportunity to educate myself. Pragya has been advocating skin donation for the past 7 years now.

“Most people don’t even know that you can donate skin which is taken from the thigh or lower back. This donation could give an acid attack or a burn victim another lease of life. With the help of donated skin, we can save up to 80% burn patients,” said Pragya. Through the Atijeevan Foundation, Pragya has helped many similarly beleaguered women heal, both physically and mentally, even helping them financially through the surgeries, making life better for fellow women.

A legal battle

Pragya’s attacker was punished with four and a half years of imprisonment.  Needless to say, it is beyond unfair that he got away so easy after causing irreparable damage to another person. I asked Pragya what she feels about the laws against acid attacks.

“The change starts from you.” I was surprised because I did not understand how people like me could prevent acid attacks. She explained further:

“See, even though we have laws against the regulated sale of acid, we can still find these corrosive chemicals sold freely in the markets to anyone in any quantity. You just need to do your bit. Stop using acid, ask your friends, family members not to use acid for anything, and that is how acid will stop being available for retail sale. Hence, there would not any attacks.”

Pragya’s response made me realize how we don’t really think about so many things, because it has never affected us the way it has affected somebody else. People who have lost someone in a bike accident know the importance of wearing a helmet. It is time we look differently at that ‘cleaning’ bottle which has a place in our washrooms and implement #BoycottAcid.

How shallow are you?

You see someone with a burnt face and arms. You don’t know if it is a burn or a disease. You don’t know if it is communicable. At the least, it is an unpleasant sight. You don’t even know the person. What would you do Would you rather choose a seat away from them?

This was a hard question to ask. I felt ashamed to even ask Pragya.

Has it ever happened to her that people did not wish to sit close to her?

Pragya replied, “I have seen people want to keep an elite and beautiful friend circle. Two days ago when I was in an event, there was a famous celebrity who happens to work on a social cause. She came to sit beside me but changed her seat when she saw my face. I have no ‘gyan’ to share to that category of people but I hope she raises a sensitive child who is aware about the need of inclusion in our society. There are unfortunate people around us who have some physical disability or are disfigured, but they have the biggest heart, much bigger than the ones who are self-obsessed and don’t have empathy for others.”

A supportive family

Pragya Singh believes that adversities make us realize who is our loyal companion, support and strength in life. Pragya found everything she wished for in her “true soul-mate” – her husband. At times the reactions from random people in public spaces has put Pragya off. But her husband maintains a perfect balance and holds her tightly,  giving a warm smile to the passers-by.

Pragya has two daughters aged 10 and 8. Initially it was very difficult for the children. Pragya says she does not even know how they have answered the unwelcome and uncomfortable questions in school when she was not around. But Pragya made sure she made her daughters aware that her story was not a story of tragedy. It was a story of perseverance, hard work and support to others. At the same time, she encouraged her children to create their own version of sharing their mother’s story, with pride and not shame.

We live in times of rampant bullying in schools where kids gang up and call another child ugly. How cruel could they be to people who look different?

“The struggles that a disfigured or disabled person face are multi faceted. It never gets over, the fight to live continues throughout the life,” she says.

How dare she reject me… I will destroy her!

We ask women to be bold. We ask them not to feel scared. But with incidents like these, it is hard to not feel scared. Pragya and her family had rejected the proposal of a man who went to the extent of doing something so unimaginable and gruesome. I asked Pragya what she would like to say to young women.

How should they deal with proposals they plan to reject?

Pragya said that it very important to share it with your family or your close friends if there is any kind of threat from a stalker or an ex. It may not  happen immediately. But there may be signs of aggression or violence or  possessiveness which one should never ignore. A red flag is a red flag, no matter how far-fetched it may seem.

I asked Pragya Singh if she has forgiven the person because of whom she lost so much. “Yes,” she said. “Until you forgive and find peace with yourself, you won’t be able to move on.”

In Pragya’s own words, “Life will never go as planned. If I can change people’s perception around me half the battle would be won, as beauty lies in the eye of a beholder.”

Thank you Pragya for being a beacon of hope for so many women. You are changing lives not just with your words of optimism, but with the relentless work you are doing on ground level. You bring live the word ‘Atijeevan’ in the true sense!

And my takeaway from our conversation? Be grateful for what you have. Don’t complain about little things. Be kind to those who look different. They are going through more than you could imagine.

Find Atijeevan Foundation on its website and on twitter.

Images source: Pragya Singh

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